A lot of people think of plants as boring, if occasionally attractive, things that don’t do much worth talking about. As it turns out that’s wrong. It might not fit into the general view of plants but they do a lot more than just sit around. In this post I want to show you plants that eat animals, grow without soil, move (and move a lot faster than you might expect) and can survive incredibly harsh conditions.
Our first stop is to mention the story that inspired this post, the discovery of a mutualistic relationship between a carnivorous plant, Nepenthes bicalcarata, and a species of ant, Camponotus schmitzi, that lives inside parts of the plant. N. bicalcarata is a carnivorous pitcher plant, a type of plant that has an open gourd to trap animals, usually insects, which they then digest for nutrients that are lacking in the soil. Scientists knew the ants benefited by living with the plant but did not have any proof that the plants were benefiting. They didn’t just give up or say what they wanted to be true but compared plants that did and didn’t have ants living inside them. This comparison showed that plants with ants did do better than plants without ants.
N. bicalarata is not the only carnivorous plant though. Nepenthes Robcantleyt is a recently identified species, even though it has been shown at the Chelsea Flower Show. It is a huge plant with leaves up to 2,5m wide and a pitcher that is 40cm deep and 10cm across. A plant that size can eat is mammals as large as rats! It’s keepers don’t actually let it though, explaining:
We have rats in the nursery and they are quite regularly caught by these plants. We have to fish them out. The plant can cope with them but we can’t – the smell is disgusting.
Admittedly most carnivorous plants do not dine on rats but just small insects. Perhaps the most famous carnivorous plant is the Venus Flytrap, Dionaea muscipula. I had a few as a child but, unfortunately, they never lasted all that long. What is particularly interesting about them is that they are capable of moving quite quickly, something you don’t expect from a plant. If you don’t expect that it’ll make Mimosa pudica even more interesting. It’s a plant that, when touched, will fold up its leaves in seconds.
When it comes to plant speed, however, nothing beats the White Mulberry, Morus alba which catapults its seeds at 560 km/h!
Another interesting sort of plant is that which doesn’t grow in the soil. My gran used to have clumps of a strange grey plant in her trees, some of which I took from her garden, which fascinated me because it didn’t need to be planted. When I did a bit of Googling for this post I found something that seems to be what I have, Tillandsia. It’s not the most interesting plant visually but it has a certain appeal from being so different to what comes to mind when you think of a plant. This sort of plant, the kind that grows without needing any soil, is called an epiphyte.
For the last strange plant we have to go back to my undergraduate time at university. In my department there was a group studying resurrection plants that were extremely drought tolerant. In most cases if you see your plants shrivel up and go brown it’s too late to save them. Resurrection plants, in contrast, can lose up to 95% of their water and still survive. Furthermore not only will they survive but they can go from brown to bloom in just 5 days! You can enjoy that in the video below.